August 6, 2019
In July members of the Governmental Research Association (GRA) gathered in St. Petersburg, Florida for the 116th annual GRA conference.
The GRA is the national organization of individuals professionally engaged in governmental research, of which the Civic Federation is a member. Its annual conference, hosted by a different member organization each year, provides a forum for governmental research professionals to collaborate, discuss topical policy issues and share knowledge regarding effective organizational practices.
This year’s conference was hosted by GRA member Florida Tax Watch and its President and Chief Executive Officer, Dominic Calabro. Representatives from organizations based in 12 states, including Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin were in attendance.
Membership in the GRA and the annual conference serve as an important resource for Civic Federation staff to exchange ideas, best practices and experiences with peer organizations.
For the first time, the conference offered two different informational tracks—one focusing on public policy issues and one focusing on technical skills needed for effective policy research and advocacy. Additionally, short multimedia segments on education policy punctuated the conference.
Annual GRA Awards
The GRA’s annual awards reception honors outstanding research by GRA members. Jeff Chapman, Director of State Fiscal Health at Pew Charitable Trusts, made remarks on preparing states for upcoming fiscal and economic challenges. Mebane Rash, President of GRA, led a conversation with Thomas Voss, President of the Volcker Alliance, on the future of state government budgets and the trials facing the nation.
The Awards Committee for Outstanding Policy Achievement presented the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama with a certificate of merit for “The Good Neighbor Pledge,” the Bureau of Government Research with an award for “BGR Examines Jefferson Parish School Tax Proposal” and the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations with an award for “Refining Tennessee’s Criminal Statutes of Limitations.”
The Awards Committee for Most Effective Education presented the Utah Foundation with a certificate of merit for “What’s the View from Your House? Housing Affordability Concerns in Utah” and the Citizens Research Council of Michigan with an award for their analyses of three 2018 statewide ballot proposals.
The Awards Committee for Most Distinguished Research presented the Bureau of Government Research with an award for “The Lost Penny: An Analysis of the Orleans Parish Hotel Tax Structure.”
The GRA honored Sam Tyler, former President of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, with the Frederick P. Gruenberg Award for his leadership and contributions to both the City of Boston and the GRA.
Day One Sessions
The first day of the conference covered the changing media landscape, grant writing, minimum wage policy, mapping, criminal justice issues, energy deregulation and climate change.
Bill Nichols, Vice President at Freedman Consulting, LLC, team member at Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity and former founding Managing Editor and Editor-at-Large of POLITICO, opened the conference with a discussion of how policy organizations can leverage the new media landscape. Nichols outlined recent changes to the journalism industry that have led to fewer reporters and more digital-only outlets. He discussed the benefits of self-publishing, including increased control over content and display.
Attendees heard a panel discussion on wage policy, featuring Jeff Hornstein, Executive Director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, Dominic Calabro, President & CEO of Florida TaxWatch, Jordon Newton, Research Associate at Citizens Research Council of Michigan, Phyllis Resnick, Executive Director and Lead Economist of the Colorado Futures Center and Heath W. Fahle, Director of Policy and Research at Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Panelists discussed historical or ongoing deliberations on raising the minimum wage in their respective states.
Another panel focused on criminal justice issues, featuring Peter Reichard, President of Utah Foundation and Lisa R. Margulies, Esq., Senior Policy Specialist at the Crime and Justice Institute. Panelists said that high incarceration rates are an expensive and unsustainable policy that has little impact on the overall crime rate. Panelists pointed to the Risk-Need-Responsivity model as a promising alternative.
A sponsored panel on energy deregulation featured Robert Weissert, Executive Vice President & General Counsel at Florida TaxWatch, John J. Reed, Chief Executive Officer & Chairman of the Board for Concentric Energy Advisors and Catherine Stempien, State President of Duke Energy. As a number of states—including Florida—consider deregulation, panelists offered their perspective that energy-deregulated states tend to have higher consumer energy costs that disproportionally impact low income communities.
For the final session of the day, attendees heard from climate change expert Ellen Prager, PhD, of Earth2Ocean, Inc. Prager discussed the many known drivers and challenges of global climate change, while also flagging the areas where scientists are still in the dark. Prager said that she and the scientific community are certain climate change is caused by human activity, and that the major unknown is exactly how disruptive, permanent and costly the damage will be. She stressed the need for urgency in enacting climate policy.
Kelley O’Brien, Principal Consultant of KTO Strategy & Communications, led a skills session on grant writing. O’Brien stressed the importance of framing grant proposals within the context of broader community need.
Joe Adams, Research Coordinator at Public Affairs Research Council Alabama, led a skills session on mapping. Adams weighed the merits of different mapping programs and showed the wide range of data visualization possibilities through mapping.
Day Two Sessions
The second day of the conference covered government efficiency options, social media boosting, healthcare issues, people-first policy development and citizen priorities projects, as well as the annual GRA awards.
The opening session featured a sponsored panel on a recent federal Office of Personnel Management clarification allowing state contractors to comply with merit system principles, featuring David Casey, Senior Vice President at MAXIMUS and Marsha Simon, PhD, President of MJ Simon & Company. According to Casey and Simon, the clarification has wide-ranging implications for how states deliver services that could lead to efficiencies and cost savings.
A panel including Timothy Michling, Research Associate at Citizens Research Council of Michigan, Jason Stein, Research Director of the Wisconsin Policy Forum and Shawn Teigen, Vice President and Research Director at Utah Foundation discussed Medicaid expansion and healthcare. Panelists mentioned the growing costs associated with healthcare, but noted that increased Medicaid coverage means fewer uncompensated care cases, saving municipalities and states money in the long run.
Jen Zuckerman, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the World Food Policy Center, discussed people-first policy development. Zuckerman highlighted the importance of building relationships with communities that organizations seek to serve. Rather than offering prescriptive solutions, Zuckerman advocates providing resources to implement community-led initiatives and used examples from her work in food security as illustrations of effective and ineffective policy.
A final panel, featuring Bert Brandenburg, Senior Counsel at Ward Circle Strategies, Joe Karaganis, Vice President of the American Assembly at Columbia University, Shawn Teigen, Vice President and Research Director at Utah Foundation, Phyllis Resnick, Executive Director and Lead Economist at the Colorado Futures Center, Ryan Hankins, Executive Director at Public Affairs Research Council Alabama and Analisa Sorrells, Chief of Staff and Associate Director of Policy at EdNC, discussed their respective projects that surveyed citizens on their policy priorities.
Analisa Sorrells, Chief of Staff and Associate Director of EdNC, led a skills session on social media boosting. Sorrells gave an overview of EdNC’s use of Facebook Business and explored the balance between organic and paid impressions and engagement.
Day Three Sessions
On the third and final day of the conference, GRA members held their annual meeting. Following, attendees heard from Dean Mead, Senior Research Manager and GASAC Coordinator at the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB), about recent and upcoming changes to GASB standards.
Award winners, announced the previous evening, gave IGNITE presentations on their award-winning projects to close the conference. IGNITE is a timed presentation format that encourages speakers to convey their information simply and effectively.
More information on the 2019 GRA annual conference can be found here. The GRA website includes a member directory with links to each organization’s website. Additionally, the site aggregates member organizations’ blog posts and publishes a monthly digest of members’ research releases and other events. For more information about joining the Association, please visit the GRA membership page.
The following video was produced by EdNC and Florida Tax Watch staff at the close of the conference.